Air medical rescues are mostly covered by medium twin-engine helicopters, operated by either governmental or private companies. In some cases, larger helicopters are used. In Western countries, most of these are less than 20 years old and equipped with a glass cockpit. So, with avionics and sensors on aircraft always being lined up for upgrades, what are the limitations and future developments?
State of the art
The cockpits of air medical rescue aircraft include increased situational awareness (SA), such as synthetic vision systems offering a 3D display of surrounding obstacles and terrain, according to Guillaume Zini, Rotary Wing Marketing Manager at Collins Aerospace. “Better human machine interfaces (HMI) – including pilot-centric software, intuitive touchscreen operations, larger displays, four axis and hands-off autopilot – aim at reducing crew workload and increasing safety,” he said. “Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System (H-TAWS) and, at a minimum, radar altimeters have also been mandated for most of these operations over the past decade to reduce controlled flights into terrain (CFIT).”
HeliSure is a set of flight situational awareness solutions supplied by Collins, which combine 3D visualization, sensors and databases to provide situational awareness for helicopters. “All while optimizing size, weight, power and cost for a breadth of rotary-wing solutions. The first two products of the HeliSure family are Helicopter Synthetic Vision System (H-SVS) and H-TAWS,” explained Collins.
Air medical rescue operators are constantly striving to find the right balance of avionics equipment
According to Marco Morelli, Marketing Manager at Anodyne Electronics Manufacturing (AEM), air medical rescue operators are constantly striving to find the right balance of avionics equipment to safely fly the mission, and medical equipment to provide the appropriate level of care to the patient. “Our P139-HD Digital Audio System is the hub of the special role aircraft, custom configured so pilots and crew can operate and complete their mission according to the exact requirements. We also provide a number of accessories to complement the audio system,” Morelli said. “The Bluetooth Audio Accessory (BAA01) is a panel-mount unit designed to add Bluetooth connectivity to existing avionics; and a Remote Transmit Selector (RTS01) can be added to existing audio systems to conveniently toggle the TX Select to desired communication radio, without letting go of flight controls. For external communication, our range of loudspeaker systems are suitable for small turbine helicopters, plus robust products capable of over 1,760W of effective, peak audio output power.”
Ken Saumure is a Sikorsky S-92A offshore line and medevac pilot in Canada. He knows the flight tools first-hand, and how their implementation is often at the discretion of the individual.
“Helicopter operators use many different hardware and software platforms based on the operations and certification of each mission. This varies widely, not only globally, but with each regional environment,” he said. “For example, day/VFR operation, helicopters are typically single-engine (Bell 407 and the AS350/EC130 are solid, single-engine HEMS platforms). These aircraft are not typically fitted with any stability augmentation or even flight guidance/autopilots. However, due to the nature of HEMS, even in day/VFR, the navigation equipment is quite powerful. GPS/FMS with onboard mapping applications (i.e. ForeFlight) are used extensively to navigate to scenes or commonly used waypoints. This software most always has airspace guidance as well, usually installed on a device such as an iPad at the pilot’s discretion.”
The increased use of night-vision technology is becoming more widespread
Flying in darkness is always an additional challenge, but further help is at hand. “For day/night VFR, many HEMS operators are now clearly understanding the risks of flying at night,” explained Saumure. “Aircraft avionics may be similar to that of a day/VFR helicopter, but the increased use of night-vision technology (ANVIS) is becoming more widespread. Also, the use of obstacle and terrain avoidance (EGPWS), combined with RADAR altimeters, would prove essential in mountainous areas. Some regions require multi-engine/multi-crew operations at night, while some still are fine with single engine, single pilot.
“For more complex operations, multi-engine, multi-crew HEMS operations are required. The helicopters may or may not be certified to operate Category A (guaranteed single-engine fly-away performance), but if multi-engine, then the level of complexity and capabilities will be significantly greater. A helicopter certified for IFR flight will have stability augmentation, typically equipped with a ‘glass cockpit’ with dual PFD/MFD and NAV screens. The satellite guidance (GPS) will also be certified for IFR use.”
For Saumure, size is everything, although costs can be extensive. “The rule of thumb when it comes to options is the bigger the better. Helicopters like the S-92, AW139, H145 and others, can be equipped with search lights, NVG-compliant avionics, thermal cameras and external hoists, just to mention a few. Capabilities are always directly related to budgets – a HEMS-equipped Bell 407 day/NIGHT/VFR would be around US$3-4 million, and a SAR-equipped S92 around $30 million.”
Limitations and data advancements
In terms of system development, there has been significant progress over the past 20 years, according to Zini. “The full glass cockpit was introduced in the 2000s, followed by enhanced HMI, SA and touchscreens – driven and accelerated by the introduction of the iPad in 2010,” he said. “The limitations are not necessarily at avionics or cockpit level, but rather human level in terms of the advanced training required to operate the latest systems. Next-gen cockpits could perhaps provide more real-time in-flight data, such as weather.”
Next-gen cockpits could provide more real-time in-flight data
“Each aircraft has its limitations, including the SAR equipped S-92,” said Saumure. “For Day/VFR operators, they’re usually going to be due to weather. Once you get into more complex operations, the limitations are usually mandated by local rules and regulations set forth by the governing bodies.”
Many older helicopters are still experiencing a digital transformation, where aircraft are being upgraded from analog to digital solutions, which leads to significant reductions in weight and size, while increasing capabilities and flexibility, affirmed Morelli. “As operators try to find the right balance of equipment to install and operate, the reality is that most of the systems do not always have a simple method of connectivity,” he said. “Requirements can change as teams respond to changing environments and scenarios. As the role of operators evolves, flexibility in audio system configuration allows updates to be made, without replacing components. This is a feature of the P139-HD Digital Audio System. Our customers can work directly with our AEM team to define their required operational and equipment changes. We then collaborate in partnership with our customer to ensure the configuration is exactly what they need, bench testing to ensure accuracy, while supporting them through the entire process.”
The key to success will be the ability to remain flexible in architecture and integration
AEM is listening to customers and making improvements on existing product lines and developing solutions. “Improvements in weight, size and audio clarity can always be made. For the next generation, keeping pace with developments in other mission equipment will continue to be a challenge, as updates in technology are not always well coordinated with platforms that might be affected,” said Morelli. “The key to success will be the ability to remain flexible in architecture and integration, so changes or advances in one field do not negatively impact the ability to communicate and share information.”
Saumure agrees that technology is always evolving. “Next-generation avionics will focus on how Primary Flight and Multi-Function Displays (PFD/MFD) provide information from the aircraft to the pilot. Human Interface and how it relates to Cockpit or Crew Resource Management (CRM) is a future concern. As cockpits become more complex, with budgets under scrutiny, the push for single-pilot IFR (SPIFR) will drive this initiative, based on historical risk analysis and accident reporting data. Future cockpits will need to be sophisticated, while still simple and concise, without the risk of ‘information overload’.”
A helicopter cockpit is a busy place, especially when missions demand a pilot’s full attention, observed Morelli. “Advances in audio clarity and custom configurability allow them to minimize distractions and focus attention on critical communication. By specifying isolated talk groups, communication can be routed to the individuals who need it. Digital audio technology allows settings to be reconfigured by software if the operator needs to make a change or if new equipment is added,” he said. “Adding Bluetooth functionality to helicopter communications equipment is becoming increasingly expected by users. Whether products have Bluetooth integration built in – or by using AEM’s Bluetooth Audio Accessory to add wireless connection to existing avionics – allowing audio systems to connect Bluetooth-enabled devices is now extremely important to operators.”
Helicopter communication will continue to become more intuitive and focused on increasing safety levels, while decreasing workload, according to Morelli. “With flexibility to build the communications around unique use cases, operators can focus more on their mission and less on switching or muting unnecessary audio interruptions,” he said. “Pilots are also facing increasing complexities, so the ability to communicate with all stakeholders in a seamless manner will allow for more successful operations.”
Adding Bluetooth functionality to helicopter communications equipment is becoming increasingly expected by users.
For Collins, the future is MOSA – a modular, open system approach, aimed at driving improved and faster fielding of technology and reducing cost over the helicopter lifecycle, stated Zini. “MOSA is being driven by the military, but it will have a positive impact on civil and dual use next-generation helicopters as well,” he said. “This will help helmet-mounted or head-worn technology solutions (i.e. night vision, EVS, CVS) become broadly available, allowing improved ‘eyes out’ functionality for the helicopter pilot. Increased pilot assistance, but not necessarily full autonomy, is also a recurring theme.”
But there’s one other area that Saumure believes is a key focus. “Stabilization is becoming a hot topic – and certainly one of the key elements in reducing risk in single-engine/single-pilot HEMS. All transport category helicopters have stability augmentation and that is part of the IFR certification. But the light-medium range of HEMS-equipped helicopters (Standard, Normal & Utility Category) don’t usually have that. Some countries allow SPIFR HEMS operations without stability and it’s just too risky. As technology continues to develop, complex stabilization systems are getting smaller, lighter and more affordable. This will make it attractive to provide three- or even four-axis stabilization in smaller helicopters.”